Why 'grown-up' authors are now writing for kids
This is a tale of how writers for adults came to write books for children again.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, long before there were skateboards and Nintendos and movies at the mall, many children would sit and read books, written by the wisest people in the land.
They read about a clever spider and a pig, or a wardrobe with a magic land inside. The man who wrote about the spider, E.B. White, was a great writer for grown- ups in New York, and across the sea, in an ancient place called Oxford, a professor named C.S. Lewis wrote about a lion and a witch.
The children loved to read these books so much that grown-ups read them too. And wise writers wrote their wisest books about older boys and girls, like the barefoot boy named Huckleberry, or Scout from the land down south, or a boy named Holden, who ran away from school.
But then this stopped for many years, and books like these were gone. "Reading may have taken a back seat to television, video games all the myriad evils," says grown-up Jerome Kramer, editor of BOOK magazine in New York.
With these many evils in the land, the people who made books thought children wouldn't read long stories with lots of pages. The people also learned to study demographics, and they thought grown ups liked books just for grown-ups, and children liked books just for children.
But then a book about a boy with round-rimmed glasses came to the stores. Children loved the adventures of Harry Potter, who went to school to learn to be a wizard. It was a big book with lots of pages, and grown-ups loved it too. The author, J.K. Rowling, wrote three more, and millions and millions rushed to buy them, girls and boys and moms and dads.
Now, writers and publishers all through the land are trying to make books for children books that grown-ups might like too. "Harry Potter reawakened the genre," Mr. Kramer says. "What I think was reawakened was that excitement, that passion of getting lost in a great book."
Today, many writers for adults are trying to sell their very first books for kids. There's a man named Michael Chabon, who won a prize called the Pulitzer for one of his grown-up books. His new book is about a boy who goes to a magical world, where playing baseball is the only way to fight the evil there. He calls it "Summerland."
There's also Neil Gaiman, and his scary book, "Coraline." There's Isabel Allende and her "City of Beasts." And there's the famous Joyce Carol Oates and her "Big Mouth & Ugly Girl." A man named Carl Hiaasen, who writes funny grown-up books about Florida, is trying to sell a book called "Hoot." It's about owls facing danger from a pancake house.
Many of these writers always wanted to write books for children, but they never got the chance. For Mr. Chabon, writing books had been a dream since he was a little boy. He longed to write an adventure story that had children as the heroes, just as his favorite Narnia chronicles did.
The adventures in these children's books are often full of danger and evil. Writers like to write this way when the real world is confusing and scary, and they feel helpless. In the magical worlds they think up, even children can fight scary battles and win, sometimes better than grown ups.
"These children's stories root themselves in what children need," says Frank Riga, professor of English at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. "They need to be told that they can have power if they use it responsibly and intelligently with ingenuity.... And there's no question that it's a catharsis for adults, too. We read literature, in general, in part to find a world that we can control in our imaginations."
Chabon's "Summerland" is about children fighting the evil Coyote, who wants to end the world. In Mr. Hiaasen's "Hoot," a new boy in town thinks of clever schemes to save a group of owls.
Some grown-ups worry that these books are too scary for kids. A lot people have asked if the fourth Harry Potter book is too creepy for little kids. And some people don't think it's a good idea that authors like Neil Gaiman, who has written some really scary books for adults, are writing for kids.
Yet Dr. Riga says some scary stories may be OK. "I think kids like to be scared, but at the same time know they're protected." In the end, he believes, scary adventure stories help kids learn how to feel safe when scary things happen in the real world.
Whichever way, the people who sell books are also hoping to make a lot of money, just like they did with Harry Potter. "You get that much more bang for your buck if you can market the book to the adult readers as well," says Marika Flatt, the national media director for Phenix & Phenix Literary Publicists in Austin, Texas.
Now that there doesn't have to be a difference between books for children and books for adults, writers can write about bigger kids again, like Holden or Scout.
"The period of adolescence is a period of great turmoil, with decisions crowding an uncertainty, and I think it's simply a fertile time for writers to focus their attention," says Bill Tipper, an editor for Barnes&Noble.com, a store that sells books on computers. "When you see a phenomenon like Harry Potter, it reminds everyone that there are books and there are writers and there are feelings that cut across these barriers."
Now all through the land, girls and boys, moms and dads, the writers, and the people who make the books, too, are happy to find stories that everyone will love, and read together.